Justin Rose speaks with a golden glint in his eye whenever the topic turns over to the Olympic Games.
In 2016, Rose, representing Team Great Britain, claimed a much-coveted gold medal in Rio de Janeiro as golf made a welcome return to the Olympics following a 112-year lapse, edging Sweden’s Henrik Stenson by two shots following a memorable final day duel.
Matt Kuchar took the bronze for Team USA after rallying with a closing 63 and shed a tear on the podium which signified the enormity of the moment, not just for himself but for the game of golf in the larger scheme of things.
With the Tokyo Olympics around the corner following a one-year delay due to COVID-19, all eyes will be on golf’s superstars, both men and women, to deliver another rousing show to cement its place on the Olympic roster.
Sadly, Rose, Stenson and Kuchar will not have the opportunity to defend their medals at Kasumigaseki Country Club from July 29 to August 1 after missing out on qualifying but their absence will be made up through the appearance of five of the world’s top-10 golfers in the field of 60, led by Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau. Rory McIlroy, a two-time FedExCup champion, and home hero Hideki Matsuyama, the Masters winner in April, will be amongst the other big names in the field.
Rose speaks highly of his achievement in Rio, which saw a number of golfers withdrawing from the Games due to concerns over the Zika virus five years ago.
“Honestly, it’s been probably the biggest gift of my career. It’s really been a fantastic thing and the fact it links me to so many other great athletes in other sports, it’s something very, very cool,” said Rose.
“I think with Kuch, Henrik and myself kind of being the first medallists, I think the guys on Tour have seen what it’s meant to us and to the golfing public and fans. Hopefully golf will embed itself in the Olympics. To walk out with the whole Team GB at the Maracana Stadium, it felt like being a part of something incredible. Something bigger than your individual sport.”
A 10-time winner on the PGA TOUR and holder of 11 victories on the European Tour, Rose said he soaked in his Olympics experience. He exchanged views and insights with fellow Team GB tennis star and double gold medallist, Andy Murray, and saw up close how players from the rugby sevens team trained and pushed themselves to be stronger, faster and better.
“Andy was really interested with how much golfers pay attention to technique and the sense I got from him is that he doesn’t really focus much on technique … he focuses on the strategy of the game and playing the opponent. The actual technique of the groundstrokes and the serve, it seems like he didn’t obsess over that whereas golfers can obsess over technique quite a bit. It was interesting to hear his mindset on that,” said Rose.
Stenson, a six-time PGA TOUR winner and 11 times on the European Tour, walked with the Swedish contingent in the opening ceremony in Rio which gave him the chills. “We all look back at the great memories,” said Stenson. “Being part of the opening ceremony in Rio … it was a proud moment.”
His silver medal has suffered a few scratches and dents as it was used widely at charity events, media activities and even brought for “Show and Tell” in school by his children. “At the time, I was the reigning Open champion and silver medallist and those two travelled together and I don’t know if the Claret Jug started being annoyed with the silver medal and banged it up,” laughed the Swede.
“It was a lot of tournaments, a lot of media and a lot of charity events. It went everywhere. It went to my kids’ schools … my daughter wanted it for “Show and Tell” and she’s a bit more careful than my son is. Since I promised her, my son wanted to take it too and he dropped his backpack with the medal in it and there’s a big dent at the bottom now. It’s not in the best of state.”
The Swede believes golf’s return to the Olympics after over a century has impacted the growth of the sport around the world. “We’re reaching out to a broader audience and certainly back home in Sweden, there were many more people watching me go head-to-head with Justin for the gold than seeing me win the Open Championship,” he said.
“It’s great for the growth of the game on a worldwide scale. We had messages afterwards from people saying ‘I’ve never tried golf and never really watched it but I watched the Olympics and I want to go out now to try the game’. I think these are some of the key moments for us being part of it. It is a special event, being once in every four years. Winning major championships is huge in our sport but you can only be Olympic champion once every four years.”
Kuchar, who has represented the U.S. in a combined nine appearances at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, found massive satisfaction in finishing third for the first time in his illustrious career. With golf being such an individual sport, winning is very often the yardstick to measure success but he treated his bronze medal achievement as gold.
“Man, the medal ceremony and finishing up on 18 and having the medal put around my neck, it brought tears to my eyes,” said Kuchar. “To go out and have to shoot a great round to get a medal, what a thrill that was.”
Photo Credit: PGA TOUR/IGF